Posted by: Bill | March 31, 2008

A week in the Napa Valley

I wrote this in March of 2008, but wanted to include it here so it can be referenced with a simple link instead of me digging up an old email. My apologies as it is not short.

Here are the chronicles of our trip to the Napa Valley. We have:

  • Provided notes on all restaurants, wineries, gas stations, barber shops and other vendors throughout the trip. The guidance we received from previous Napa visitors was beyond important so hopefully others will benefit from the paragraphs that follow.
  • Tried to be brief – pause while laughter subsides – no, really I did try.
  • Included photos for those that don’t want to deal with my brevity.

Please keep in mind that Heather and I are not wine experts by any stretch of the imagination. If it sounds like we are, this is merely my writing skill shining through.

Friday, 2/29 – I was quite excited to get our vacation started. We took Jet Blue from Dulles and flew to Oakland. There was a bit of a delay (not that big of a deal in our opinion) with the flight. To our pleasant surprise, due to Jet Blue’s passenger bill of rights, we now have $100 toward a future ticket. Little did they know that I love this airline and they would probably have to strand us on the tarmac for 6 hours for that to change.

No issues with our old friends from Hertz this time around and we quickly began the drive north toward the town of Napa. It was quite late (in all US time zones) when we arrived.

Saturday, 3/1 – Breakfast involved Bill seeking out French Toast. Success! The first day was devoted mostly to research. Unlike our trip to Tuscany, we actually did a fair amount of research ahead of time. Granted, most of this involved talking to some serious wine-loving friends (Tara and Assaf), but it still counts as research. Heather dove in and mapped out a plan for the week while I toiled with the last assignment of my online stats class.

We had dinner at Ubuntu. Admittedly, I do not normally frequent “community-focused, organic” restaurants (i.e. vegetarian with lots of vegan options). I was intrigued by the name though, which is shared by a popular, open-source, Linux-based operating system that can be seen from time to time in my workplace. Our meal was pretty good overall though. Our appetizer was great to look at, but the 7 types of uncooked broccoli stopped there. I have never asked this many questions about a menu that was in English.

Sunday, 3/2 – We went for a 9 mile run and were quite fortunate. Not only was the weather amazing, but our choice for a route was over rolling hills surrounded by grapevines and olives. Our good friends at favoriterun.com were quite helpful as that is where I found the route suggestion. After a hasty breakfast at the First Squeeze, we were off to our first winery.

Appropriately enough, the Napa Valley Marathon was finishing up as we drove along the Silverado Trail. We saw several folks at mile 22 fleeing the SAG wagon, but as evidenced by the picture, they were confident they would finish. Heather mused that this is one of the few marathons that could bring her out of retirement.

First up was Mumm Napa. They have an array of sparkling wines and a very nice patio for tasting. I tasted the reserves ($18) and Heather did the “Best of the Best” ($25). The pours were generous which was good based on the cost. We liked the 2003 Blanc de Blancs enough to purchase a bottle. On the way out, Heather spied a bottle that Carlos Santana and the owner collaborated on so we bought that one without tasting it.

Next was St. Supery. We served their Sauvignon Blanc at our wedding. We tasted the 2006 and it was still good. We were also fans of the 2004 Elu and the Moscato. The Elu is definitely still young. We purchased a half bottle which is now aging in our wine cellar. Perhaps we will someday upgrade to this.

We ate lunch at the Oakville grocery store. If you visit, be prepared for lots of jockeying for position. This begins in the parking lot, moves inside the store and then finishes as you try to find a place to sit. Service was spotty, but the food was tasty enough for us to return two more times during the week.

We ate at a picnic table overlooking a beautiful winery that turned out to be our next destination. Opus One has an amazing tasting facility. However, I remarked as we walked in “These are not our people”. They make one wine per year and charge a lot for it ($30 per glass on site). One of us tried the 2003 and the other the 2004 (I think). They were good, but we do not think they are worth $180 a bottle.

We chose Ad Hoc for dinner. They have only a prix fixe menu that changes daily. For us, it was iceburg lettuce, pork, cheese/almonds/honey and a warm brownie with vanilla crème. We were unlucky with the pork in that ours was not quite cooked right and quite fatty. However, the cheese plate gained the endorsement of the family expert (Heather). That being said, we would definitely return as the price was very reasonable.

Monday, 3/3 – We started the day at Schramsberg sparkling wine in Calistoga (northern tip of the valley). This is one of the oldest wineries in the valley. The cave tour was excellent; it was informative, entertaining and included 4 healthy pours ($25 / person). All were tasty and we learned that one glass has as many as 11 million bubbles. Nixon took their wines with him when he went to China and they have been served at each presidential inauguration since.

Next up was Neal Family. This is a very small winery (only about 7,000 cases annually) off the beaten path at the top of a mountain. We got a personal tour of the facilities since we think few people make the trek up the mountain. The wine was well worth the drive especially with no fees for tasting. We bought a bottle of the 2005 Cabernet and plan to order more in the future.

Lunch was at Taylor’s Refresher. Very good burgers, fries and milkshakes at Napa prices (not cheap).  We still prefer Elevation Burger.

We headed to Chateau Montelena next. We tasted 5 excellent wines for $15. I liked both their Chardonnay and the Riesling, which is rare for me. The estate Cabernet was amazing. This winery is well known for having the winning chardonnay at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. On the wall, I was surprised to see my PoliSci professor from Loyola (who also has been known to write, speak and teach about wine from time to time). We spent some time in their gardens as well where we met a fearless swan, learning how much Heather doesn’t like fearless birds.

Our last winery of the day was Vincent Arroyo where we tasted several wines straight from the barrel (no fee, very friendly atmosphere). The woman doing the tasting was new to this and spilled wine pretty much everywhere.

Our night finished at Brix where we brought the Neal Family Cabernet in for dinner. The wine was so big it dominated the entire meal. It might need a couple of years to calm down a bit. Overall, the meal and service were excellent and the views of the valley would have been fantastic if we didn’t arrive after sunset.

Tuesday, 3/4 – We took a tour via Napa Valley Bike Tours. The bikes they provided were excellent. We chose one of the longer “tours” which turned out to be them giving us a map and a spot to meet up with the main tour at a certain vineyard. In hindsight, no need to pay extra for the tour. The bikes and map were all we needed. The first 30 miles of our ride took us up a mountain where we had a tremendous view of the valley. We met up with the rest of the tour for the last 5 miles and 2 wineries, Laird Family and Hopper Creek. The people were nice, but the wine was not so good. Laird Family had a great patio and gave us 5 wines for $10 (waived with purchase). They came close to serving a corked Merlot, but realized it at the last second. Unfortunately, the non-corked version was not much better. We had dinner in at our trailer.

Wednesday, 3/5 – Today, we made the 1 hour trip to Sonoma. After a quick tour of the town, it was off to Audelssa. This was easily our favorite winery (both the wine and the experience itself). All of their vines are at the top of a mountain (100 acres I believe). If you decide to visit, make sure you make an appointment at the winery, not the tasting room (no fee). The tasting room will not offer you the amazing views of the valley (with San Fran in the distance). We also ate lunch on the grounds (where they provided a tablecloth and a free glass to enjoy with our meal) and toured the lab. Their wine is popular enough that the only place to get it is to order it from them. No distribution whatsoever. We felt we were faced with no other choice than to order some.

Next up was Siduri/Novy. It was odd to taste in a warehouse, but that is how they roll. Their grapes come from lots all over California. Overall, we were not a fan of most of them until we tasted a 2007 Pinot Noir that will be available soon.

Last winery of the day was Quivira. We had a tasty bottle of their Red Zinfandel at Ubuntu and were curious to visit a “biodynamic” winery. We soon learned that this means burying horns (formerly attached to cows) full of poo throughout their vineyard. Overall, the wine was okay and we ended up buying a bottle of the same Zin to take to dinner at Cyrus.

Cyrus was easily our best meal of the trip, despite the fact that one of the wine pairings was Sake that neither of us has recovered from drinking. The service was pretty much perfect and they gave us a menu of what we ate to take with us. It’s a good thing because everything was so complicated that I could only remember the main ingredient of each course. The meal included 2 dessert courses, then our pick of chocolates and then a brownie to take home with us. Good times.

Thursday, 3/6 – Today was deemed a rest day for our livers. After a quick run in the morning, we drove south to Muir Woods. It was quite crowded and felt like much more of a tourist attraction than we expected. Once off the main trail, things were quieter and it was a decent hike. The trees themselves were impressive. The tallest one was 379′ and some are as wide as 14′. Dinner was once again prepared by Heather in our Trailer Bistro.

Friday, 3/7 – Our last day of tasting began with Cakebread. This is one of the larger wineries we visited (about 150,000 cases annually). I felt there was more marketing going on as we tasted ($10 for 6 wines). They were unique in providing lots of information about good food pairings to go with each wine. There were intricate recipes on the tasting cards for each wine as well. The whites were very good and the reds, while tasty, were definitely not worth the prices (several were $80+). Overall, it was a nice place to visit given the low fee and beautiful grounds.

Next up was Pride Mountain. This was more about the grounds and the scenery than the wine. $5 bought us 5 wines to taste. Once again, I was surprised that I liked their Chardonnay. We also liked their Merlot enough to take one home with us. I tasted my first Cabernet Franc and was not so happy with it, but Heather did not mind it at all. The sommelier at the White House is apparently a fan of their wines. There were several menus on the wall from dinners at the White House. We brought lunch with us and had a great picnic on their grounds. The gentleman who did the pouring was quite nice and suggested we visit the stables after we were finished with lunch. Sometimes, it’s not about the wine so we definitely recommend visiting.

Last, we have Del Dotto. We tasted at a facility that won’t be there for too much longer as they are building a new one. Similar to Schramsberg, we tasted in the caves (about 10 wines for $40) straight from the barrel. Del Dotto was unique in many ways. They were extremely generous (we had several 2nd pours) so be careful driving afterwards. There was also a purposeful “party” atmosphere. On Friday’s, a disco ball appears and we have heard the drinking continues for many hours accompanied by dancing.

Overall, the wine was good. However, it was not nearly as good as the people at Del Dotto think it is, especially given their prices. Of all the wineries we visited, nobody marketed themselves harder. We tasted the same wine from 2 different barrels, one French oak and the other American. The difference was distinct and we both agreed the French was better.

At this point, we sadly waved goodbye to the valley, vowing to return soon. We battled traffic and soon arrived at our friend Heather’s apartment in San Francisco. She recently joined Google and likes it so much she does not spend much time at home. We did not have much time there, but squeezed in a great run over the Golden Gate and along the bay, a trip to Alcatraz and some quality time with Heather.

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